When reading through Exodus 32 it is normal for someone to ask the question, “Did God change His mind when speaking to Moses?” Or, perhaps even more specifically, “Did Moses change God’s mind?” The question, though legitimate, if incorrectly answered, can have potentially blasphemous ramifications. We’ll see some of them shortly.
The context of the passage we’re considering is when the children of Israel began to worship a golden calf in the wilderness (Ex. 32:1-6). God told Moses to go down from the Mount because the people had corrupted themselves (32:7). But He didn’t stop there. In light of the wickedness that the people displayed, God told Moses:
“I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people! Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation.” (vs. 9-10)
Upon hearing this, Moses began to plead with God (vs.11b). Interestingly, he did not mention the possibility of him becoming “the new Abraham” nor did he plead with God on the basis of Israel’s worthiness; rather, He pleaded with God on the basis of God’s name, reputation, and character (vs.11b-13). And it worked. Verse 14 says:
“So the Lord relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people.” (vs.14)
So how are we to see the word “relent” that is used here? Did God say, “Whoa, thanks Moses, you really saved me from making a big mistake?” Did God think, “I’m so glad I created this guy because sometimes I loose My temper and I almost fly off the handle?” Or, should we see Moses as carrying out the will of God via his intercession? I would say a definitive yes to the latter and a definitive no to the former.
First, as we have already established in prior lessons, God’s “relenting” or “repenting” is not the same as man’s “relenting” or “repenting”. God’s does not regret or relent as a man regrets or relents (cf. 1 Sam 15:29; Num 23:19). Man repents because he has thought wrongly or done wickedly; all that God does is right (Ps 18:30; Deut 32:4). Man relents in light of receiving new information, or fresh conviction, which helps him to understand that he was on an incorrect path; God’s relenting does not negate His all-knowing (Ps 147:5); rather, it is a pre-purposed change of dealing (cf. Jer 18:7-10). Did God, then, have a pre-purposed change of dealing with the people of Israel? Yes, particularly from Moses’ standpoint. God communicated great anger and threatened judgment, and then, upon Moses’ intercession, He relented. But that change of dealing was not unforeseen by Him and undoubtedly there were specific reasons for orchestrating events the way that He did.
Second, see the bigger issue here. If one interprets this passage wrongly the result is – God was going to abandon His promise to the patriarchs and to Jacob’s sons (i.e. the scepter would not depart from Judah, Gen. 49) and Moses kept Him from doing that. As noted in the previous point, all that God does is right and the thought of Him being morally helped by anyone, yet alone a fallen human being, is a dangerous assertion to make; one that not only assaults the doctrine of God’s perfect foreknowledge, but also the attribute of God’s perfect goodness.
Third, see God’s use of divine threats in light of a passage like Jeremiah 18:7-8. There the LORD spoke through the prophet Jeremiah saying: “The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it.” I reference that passage for this simple point – the proclamation of a divine threat of judgment, the kind spoken of in Jeremiah 18, had ‘within it’ a condition that could be met so that the threatened judgment wouldn’t happen. In that passage it was the repentance of the nation or kingdom threatened; in Exodus 32 it was apparently Moses’ intercession. Therefore, it’s appropriate to see that the God who knows the future perfectly made divine threats to bring about foreseen, pre-determined reactions of repentance (per Jeremiah 18) or intercession (per Exodus 32).
Fourth, the text never says that God did not know something. Again, as is common in these type of passages, it is never stated that God did not know (a) what the children of Israel thought in their hearts, or (b) what Moses would do, or (c) what He Himself would do. We should, however, see these texts through the lens of other Scriptures that teach “He knows everything” (1 Jn 3:20), has infinite understanding (Ps 147:5), and causes all things to work according to His divine will (Eph 1:11). So while this text affirms divine responsiveness it does not affirm divine ignorance.
Fifth, perhaps [emphasis on “perhaps”] part of God’s intention in His threatening and relenting was to foreshadow the priestly ministry of Christ. Undoubtedly, God had a reason for orchestrating events in the way that He did (Eph 1:11) – that much is certain. And although we do not have a New Testament passage that directly ties to the events of Exodus 32:7-14, Jesus did say that the Scriptures testify of Him (Jn 5:39) and we do know that when Moses said, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him” (Deut 18:15), he was clearly talking about Jesus (Acts 3:20-22). Therefore, when Moses interceded on behalf of the nation of Israel, it imperfectly foreshadows the way in which Jesus would intercede on behalf of God’s elect (Heb 7:25; Rom 8:34). The children of Israel would sadly be marked by unbelief and, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, that generation would die in the wilderness and not enter the Promised Land. Jesus’ intercession, however, is a perfect, enduring intercession – one that ensures that all of His people reach the ultimate Promised Land.